The Squid Game can certainly feel like an extreme version of life: a zero-sum competition, with winners and losers. We all want the same things - a fulfilling job, a family, a house, nice holidays - but living under conditions of scarcity means some of us won’t get what we want. Hence life becomes a battle, a competition to beat others. But the extreme nature of the Squid Game is also an opportunity to pause and question whether we really want those things and whether they are worth living in a constant state of competition for. It can be scary to question whether our goals in life really make sense, but it can also be liberating, allowing us to step out of the game we thought we had to play, writes Rebecca Roache.
Read Edward Castronova’s counterpoint article, Life is a squid game.
The Netflix series Squid Game depicts debt-ridden characters who compete in a series of childhood games. The winners get a huge cash prize, but the losers will die. It’s the latest in the so-called ‘battle royale’ genre of stories, named after the 1999 novel Battle Royale by the Japanese author Koushun Takami. Watching Squid Game, we have the uncanny experience of thinking: ‘Wow, thank God life isn’t really like that. Oh, wait—actually, it is’.
SUGGESTED READING Life is a squid game By Edward Castronova Squid Game’s creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, has openly stated that the story reflects real life. He remarked, ‘I wanted to write a story that was an allegory or fable about modern capitalist society, something that depicts an extreme competition, somewhat like the extreme competition of life’. This view of life as an ‘extreme competition’ is rooted in scarcity: Hwang, like the characters in Squid Game, has struggled with debt. When resources are scarce, we fight each other for them, often with a ferocity that doesn’t seem to be justified by the value of the resources. But there is a second way to react to situations of scarcity: to question whether the scarce resource in question is desirable in the first place. Instead of mindlessly competing for something that seems desirable, we can choose to quit the competition altogether.
This view of life as an ‘extreme competition’ is rooted in scarcity.
Consider the panic-buying of everything from toilet paper to petrol over the past eighteen months or so. People were buying even when they didn’t need these things: few people actually need dozens of toilet rolls at once, and nobody needs to queue for hours to buy petrol when they still have a week’s worth left in their tank. But when toilet paper or petrol are in short supply, pausing to reflect on whether they actually need any is a luxury that many people feel they can’t afford. Instead it’s a case of: fight to get it now, and worry about whether we really need it later.
Panic-buying may be rare, but capitalism thrives on scarcity. Convincing people that they don’t have enough stuff keeps them spending, and those who are content with what they have are bad for the economy. While it may be tempting to think that this thoughtless competition for more and more stuff is the way life has to be, it’s premised on a huge misunderstanding of what will make us happy. Just as the panic-buyers adopted a ‘more is better’ attitude to toilet paper—if two rolls is useful, then 48 rolls must be even better, right?—so Squid Game’s competitors take a ‘more is better’ attitude towards money. Their initial motivation is understandable: they want to rid themselves of debt. But the cash prize for which they’re competing is more than they would ever need to pay off their debts; at ₩45.6 billion (almost £30 million), it’s a sum so huge as to be almost meaningless to the average person. Interestingly, we don’t take a ‘more is better’ view of things like medicine or food. We know that while it’s good to have medicine or food when we’re sick or hungry, medicating or feeding ourselves after we’ve recovered or when we’re full can lead to problems. Research on the relationship between money and happiness indicates that we should view money in an analogous way. According to Dan Gilbert, Harvard psychologist and author of Stumbling on Happiness, ‘[o]nce you get basic human needs met, a lot more money doesn’t make a lot more happiness’ . Not only is it unnecessary to be rich; it doesn’t even make us happy.
While it may be tempting to think that this thoughtless competition for more and more stuff is the way life has to be, it’s premised on a huge misunderstanding of what will make us happy.
Why are we so mistaken about the value of money? One reason might be that money is linked to social status in a way that medicine and food are not. Social status is relative: it makes no sense to think of rising or falling in social status except by comparison to other people. We care about money not simply to meet our ‘basic human needs’, but in order to keep up with or surpass the people to whom we like to compare ourselves. When we win, others lose, and vice versa. This led the journalist and satirist H. L. Mencken in 1916 to define wealth as ‘[a]ny income that is at least $100 more a year than the income of one’s wife’s sister’s husband’ . This competition for money as a proxy for status is a losing game: as we rise in social status, the group of people to whom we compare ourselves changes too, which moves our goalposts and ensures that we never score. Like the characters in Squid Game, we’d be better off if we weren’t in the competition in the first place. Is it possible to quit?
Interestingly, we don’t take a ‘more is better’ view of things like medicine or food. We know that while it’s good to have medicine or food when we’re sick or hungry, medicating or feeding ourselves after we’ve recovered or when we’re full can lead to problems.
It is possible—but to do that, we need to understand what’s gone wrong. Capitalism has sold us an off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all conception of the good life. To be a happy citizen of the industrialised world, we need to have a satisfying career, raise some (but not too many) children, have the latest iPhone, live in a home that is at least as nice as the ones our colleagues live in, go on holidays that look like our friends’ Instagram photos, and earn enough money to finance all these things. It’s easier than it ought to be to buy into this version of what life should be, and to pursue it unquestioningly. I’ve already mentioned one reason for this: scarcity. The best jobs, homes, holidays, and so on are hard to get. With all that overtime we’re doing to ensure we don’t miss out, we don’t have much time or energy left for navel-gazing reflection on whether we really want the things we’re working so hard to obtain, or whether they will really make us happy—after all, while we’re pondering, our colleague might be sneaking past us in the race for promotion. Another reason is that it’s hard (and unsettling) to toss aside the off-the-shelf template for happiness and instead construct our own bespoke model. Doing so involves facing up to the fact that some aspects of our lives—into which we might have thrown a lot of energy over the years—might not be right for us. None of us wants to discover that we’ve been frantically pedalling down the wrong road, whether the road in question is a career, a relationship, or whatever. And even if we reject the off-the-shelf template for happiness, what do we replace it with? As I explained in an episode of my podcast, many of us don’t really know what, fundamentally, we want. I’ve lost count of how many coaching clients have replied, when I’ve asked them what they’d want their lives to be like if anything were possible, not by describing what they want but instead by listing the obstacles that stand in their way. (‘Well, I’d still have to be living in the area where I am now, because my kids go to school here’, ‘I’d still be working full time because I need to afford my mortgage payments’, etc.) By contrast, ask a child how they’d want to live if anything were possible, and you’ll still be listening to their detailed fantasy 30 minutes later. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, we lose the ability to dream big—and anyway, it’s all so much effort, right? Dreaming up your perfect life is like going to a restaurant and having to provide the chef with a recipe you’ve thought up yourself. After climbing the career ladder all week, we’re too exhausted for that. Far more relaxing to sit back, read the menu, and order something that someone else has taken the trouble to invent.
This competition for money as a proxy for status is a losing game: as we rise in social status, the group of people to whom we compare ourselves changes too, which moves our goalposts and ensures that we never score.
We pay a steep price for the sense of ease that comes with buying into someone else’s conception of the good life, however. That version—in which we consume endlessly, compete with our peers, and unquestioningly value money and what it can do for us—was not designed with our interests in mind. The real enemies of Squid Game’s characters are not their fellow competitors, but those who have created the competition in the first place. We begin to take back control when we decide to step out of the game and question the model of happiness with which our culture presents us. And the good news is that doing so is free.
 Frater, P. 2021: ‘“Squid Game” Director Hwang Dong-hyuk on Netflix’s Hit Korean Series and Prospects for a Sequel’, Variety 24th September (https://variety.com/2021/global/asia/squid-game-director-hwang-dong-hyuk-korean-series-global-success-1235073355/).
 Gilbert, D. 2007: Stumbling on Happiness (Cambridge, MA: Harper Perennial).
 Futrelle, D. Undated: ‘Here's How Money Really Can Buy You Happiness’, Time (https://time.com/collection/guide-to-happiness/4856954/can-money-buy-you-happiness/).
 Mencken, H. L. 1916: A Book of Burlesques (New York, NY: John Lane Company).